In our years of experience selling real estate, we have easily walked through more than a thousand homes for sale in the Charleston, SC area. Some homes are very well staged for showings, and you can tell that the home owners have really taken care of the home and have made good improvements to it. And, the money that the owners spent to update or improve the home should be paid back in full (and maybe with some profit) when they sell it.

Although we’ve seen some really good home improvements that pay off in the end, we’ve also seen some really bad home improvements. In fact, some of the worst features we’ve seen in homes for sale have actually been made by the sellers from “do-it-yourself” projects.

Sellers assume if they spend $10,000 in home improvements that their home is worth $10,000 more. This assumption is often true – indeed, it is the goal of the project. But, you need to make sure that you invest in the right areas so that you don’t waste your money.

So, which home improvements pay off? We’ve included below the five home improvements we’ve found to be the most effective during our experience in real estate.

1) Covering the basic necessities – the first improvements you need to make are the ones that really matter. If there are any problems with your home’s structure or systems, you need to fix these first. Potential buyers care more about problems that affect a home’s function (like a leaky roof) than problems that are cosmetic (like an outdated kitchen). And, when potential buyers find out that the home needs major repairs (replacing the roof, updating an electrical system, or removing mold), they will move on to the next home for sale on their list. So, use your money wisely – especially if you have a limited budget. Focus on areas that make your home more livable.

2) Kitchens – if your home poses no major problems, you can start your renovations in the kitchen. When you’re making home improvements, the kitchen is a good place to start because it can greatly affect the value of your home. Buyers want clean, updated kitchens. Be sure to use good quality materials and classic designs (but don’t go too modern). In order for your home improvements to pay off, you need them to appeal to a wide range of home buyers. Some of the easier improvements to make include painting the kitchen (using a neutral color, of course) and replacing cabinet hardware if the current hardware is too basic or outdated. Replacing outdated appliances almost always pays back more than full. Also, make sure that your kitchen has sufficient lighting.

3) Baths – if your kitchen is up to par, I would recommend working on the bathrooms. If you can only fix up one bathroom, I would focus on the master bath. Some of the easiest and least expensive improvements to make are repainting the walls and cabinets, recaulking the sink and shower, and replacing outdated light fixtures and faucets.

4) Creating Functional Space – if your home has a “catch-all” room, try to give that room a purpose. For example, if you have a finished room over your garage that is used simply for storage or for a recreation room, you can sell this room as an additional bedroom. Often these rooms don’t have closet space. So, adding a closet to this room would be a good investment because having an extra bedroom can greatly increase the value of your home. But, if the room over your garage is not finished, I would not recommend converting it. It would cost a lot of money to finish the room and run heating and air conditioning to it, and you would probably not get a full return on your money. The same would be true for finishing an attic.

5) Landscaping – lightly landscaping your yards can be a good investment. Small yard projects, like replacing dead bushes and reseeding (or resodding) bare lawn areas, can actually give you a small profit. But, we’ve seen some homeowners invest literally tens of thousands of dollars into their yards with fountains, gazebos, and goldfish ponds. These homeowners will only get a fraction of that money back when they sell their homes.

Making home improvements can drastically affect your home’s value. And, you can earn back more money than the amount you invested in the improvements. Just make sure that you invest in the right home improvements in order to get a full return on your investment. If you are not sure which areas to focus on, be sure to talk with your real estate agent in order to maximize your profit.